According to a scientist from the University of Leicester in the UK, the search for missing ships and sea-crossing aircraft – such as Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 – would be much easier if existing satellites were simply used differently. Dr. Nigel Bannister is developing a system in which spacecraft that already keep an eye on the land could also turn their attention to the sea.

In Bannister's preliminary study, he identified 54 satellites equipped with a combined total of 85 sensors, all of which are currently only imaging land masses.

As part of his proposed 19-nation open-source system, such satellites would also continuously record images as they passed over oceans and inland waterways. If a ship or plane were to go missing, authorities could look back through the most recent satellite images from its route, to see exactly when and when it ran into trouble. A visualization of the paths of all those satellites can be seen in the video below.

Because the system wouldn't be tracking vessels in real time, it couldn't determine where they were right at the present moment. According to the study, however, the technology could allow search areas to be confined to a few hundred square miles, thus increasing the likelihood of getting to survivors before it's too late. As things currently stand, search areas are often measured in the thousands of square miles.

Working with the New Zealand Defence Technology Agency and DMC International Imaging, Bannister's team is now testing the automated detection of vessels using imagery from DMC's NigeriaSat 2 and UK-DMC2 satellites. It is hoped that a usable version of the system could be up and running within a few years.